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The Late Great Days of Chasen's

March 31, 1995|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In youth I wassailed neighb'ring pubs,

but now reflect on friends gone by.

--From "In Repose" by Will Fowler

*

I went to visit a waning landmark the other day, in the company of a living landmark. It's an elegant way to witness history.

The landmark I visited was Chasen's restaurant in West Hollywood. The landmark that took me there was 72-year-old Will Fowler. Chasen's, of course, is one of the last of the great old L.A. celebrity restaurants. Fowler is one of the last of the great old L.A. reporters. In Japan, both would be declared national treasures.

To explain the historical importance of Chasen's, which will close Saturday after 58 years (operating cost--not business--is the culprit), one could merely fill this entire space with the names of people who have held it dear. A brief sample: Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Greer Garson, Alan Ladd, Jerry Colonna, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, David Niven, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ethel Barrymore, Walter Cronkite, Leo Carillo, Howard Hughes, and Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan.

To explain the historical importance of Fowler, one could write a book--but then, Fowler already has. To read his autobiographical "The Second Handshake" and "Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman" is to wonder about a voraciously lived life that has touched almost as many diverse and remarkable figures as Chasen's has.

Consider these rather varied Fowler resume items: while in his late teens, lived with and cared for a declining John Barrymore for six months; at 13, smoked cigars with W.C. Fields; studied orchestration with Ferde ("Grand Canyon Suite") Grofe; wrote a hit song for Doris Day ("He's So Married"); acted in B-movies in the '40s; while working for the old L.A. Examiner, was the first reporter on the scene of the so-called Black Dahlia murder Jan. 15, 1947; news director for George Putnam at KTTV in 1960; comedy writer for Red Skelton; Jack Dempsey's godson; was "one of the best of the great barroom fighters," as another of the last of the great old L.A. reporters, this paper's own Jack Smith, said of his long-ago colleague in "Reporters."

In the late 1930s, young Fowler drank plenty of martinis at Chasen's, which was, more or less, a cozy diner presided over by the beloved ex-Vaudevillian founder, Dave Chasen, and his gorgeous wife, Maude.

Into this homey atmosphere, rich with the aromas of new-lit cigars and burbling chili, regularly retreated members of a kind of round table of somewhat battered wayward knights--principally Barrymore, Fields, artist John Decker, writers James Thurber, Ben Hecht, Robert Benchley, boxing great Dempsey, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, directors John Ford and Leo McCarey, pie-faced actor Jack Oakie, actor Thomas Mitchell--and the man who usually brought them together, Gene Fowler.

Gene Fowler, of course, was the fabulous Hearst newspaperman and Hollywood screenwriter who became one of the most revered authors of his time. He was also Will's pop, and, as Will still reverently proclaims, "my friend."

*

These larger-than-life figures, whose achievements and characters are barely comprehensible to today's younger generation, enjoyed their privacy, and their alcohol--two items liberally provided by the kindred host of their round table, Dave Chasen. Will was the group's sturdy "designated driver"--as he was mine one recent evening when we went to Chasen's to bid farewell to this onetime sanctuary and any of its lingering ghosts.

"It's like looking at a Roman ruins with extra stuff put on, like the Sphinx with a new neck," said Fowler, surveying through trifocals the glittering palace the modern Chasen's has become. "You want to see it as it was; you want to go back. You're reaching out, but your arms aren't quite long enough."

Fowler couldn't even find the entrance anymore; we sort of lurched in through the kitchen, like a couple of big shots accustomed to the back way. We were nonetheless smartly greeted not by, sadly, Dave Chasen, who passed away 25 years ago, but by a dapper young gentleman named Scott McKay--who turned out to be Chasen's grandson.

"Some of the employees swear that late at night, they still smell Grampy's pipe smoke," said McKay, who told us he holds out hope that a smaller, more intimate Chasen's might return to the development that will soon occupy the Beverly Boulevard site. "I believe he's watching over this place and would understand what's happening now."

McKay poured Fowler a glass of brut, then escorted us straight to the heart of the restaurant, Dave's very office, where his dearest friends were often invited to dine. Many of those very friends were still on hand--smiling deathlessly from black-and-white photographs that left barely an empty space on the old pine-paneled walls. Chasen himself grinned from one, proudly frying burgers in the original kitchen.

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